Kasparov’s Latvian Gambit

This week, Garry Kasparov, legendary Russian chess grandmaster and one of the leaders of the country’s pro-democracy opposition, has officially requested Latvian citizenship. In his letter to the Saeima (Parliament), which can grant citizenship to foreigners based on “special merit” (and which has made 174 such decisions since 2000), Kasparov explained that a Latvian passport would give him the security to work “in Russia and in other countries across the world where civil rights are denied and democratic norms are trampled on.”

The former world chess champion emphasized that he chose Latvia both because of his longstanding links with that country (he won important competitions there in the 1970s, and his son currently holds a Latvian residency permit) and because of its democratic credentials. “It is very important for me that modern Latvia is an accomplished democratic state that has successfully overcome totalitarian legacy and integrated into the European family of nations,” he noted. Kasparov’s main reason for requesting dual citizenship is his ongoing campaign for the presidency of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) against a pro-Kremlin opponent. “In these circumstances,” he explains, “I cannot entrust my freedom of movement to Putin’s foreign ministry.”

“Garry Kasparov’s statement that Latvia is an accomplished democratic state is far removed from reality,” came one response. “His claims about Latvia seem like a desire to please Latvia’s deeply degenerate state system, in which disrespect for civil rights and values is legalized, in which corruption and lawlessness … thrive.” One would be forgiven for thinking that this declaration came from a Russian government official, but in fact, it came from Alexander Mirsky, a member of the European Parliament for Latvia and a longtime Kremlin apologist (he apparently misses the irony of denying that Latvia is a democracy while being an elected Latvian legislator with such views). In October, during a hearing on human rights in Russia (in which the author of this blog participated,) Mirsky made a heated speech in defense of Vladimir Putin’s regime, and later promised to prevent representatives of the Russian opposition from speaking in the European Parliament, vowing that he had no problem personally “throwing [them] out,” if necessary.

Mirsky’s example provides a good window into the Kremlin’s continuing political influence in Latvia. Of the nine Latvian members in the European Parliament, three have a peculiar relationship with the country they formally represent. Apart from Mirsky, they are Tatiana Zhdanok, who in 1989 co-founded the pro-Soviet International Front of the Working People of the Latvian SSR, and Alfreds Rubiks, former first secretary of the Communist Party of the Latvian SSR, who backed the hard-line coup attempt in August 1991. Meanwhile, the largest parliamentary group in the Latvian Saeima, Harmony Center, has an official cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. The political views of Latvia’s Russian-speaking minority are heavily influenced by pro-Kremlin media, which hold a near-monopoly in the Russian-language news sector in the Baltic states. The deficit of quality independent news media outlets in the Russian language in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia is becoming a major political problem for these countries. The scope of Kremlin influence in the Baltics can also be seen in the results of Russia’s 2011 parliamentary election, when Putin’s United Russia party received 54 percent of the vote from Russian citizens in Lithuania, 67 percent in Estonia, and an astounding 77 percent in Latvia. Compare this with the fact that in Russia itself, Putin’s party fell below 50 percent, while Russians living in other European Union states have mostly backed the liberal Yabloko party.

The decision currently before the Saeima—whether or not to grant the request of one of the Kremlin’s best-known critics—could be another important test of Putin’s influence in Latvia. Defense Minister Artis Pabriks, a member of Unity (the main party in the ruling coalition), has thanked Kasparov for choosing Latvia and said that approving his citizenship application would be “a very good idea.” The government, however, does not have a direct say over the decision, which must be backed by at least 51 of the 100 Parliament members. In an interview with Latvian television, Kasparov indicated that he is receiving “positive signals,” and expressed hope that legislators will not vote “under directions from Moscow.”

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